Susan Sontag would have most certainly deemed Tommy Wiseau’s mess of a movie, 2003's The Room, as pure camp. In her seminal essay “Notes on Camp,” Sontag defined the “essence” of camp as “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” and further fine-tuned her vision for this sensibility as she went. “In naïve, or pure, camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve,” she wrote.
The Room has all of those things. It’s a bulging forehead vein of a movie that’s full of melodramatic dialogue that suggests the product of a caveman trying his big, dumb hand at a script after being raised on soap operas (“You betrayed me! You’re not good. You, you’re just a chicken. Chip-chip-chip-chip-cheep-cheep.”).
Sontag distinguished pure camp from deliberate camp, and for good reason, at least at the time. “Camp which knows itself to be camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying,” Sontag wrote in 1964, which was coincidentally the same year John Waters began releasing movies that would test the durability of that aspect of Sontag’s thesis.
Despite having its general vibe perfectly encapsulated by Sontag, The Room challenges the parameters of her definition in surprising ways too, chiefly in its overwhelmingly straight audience. From what I’ve seen, The Room’s gay following is negligible, and Sontag went out of her way to tie camp to gay culture. It took almost 40 years after Sontag put her finger on what made camp camp, but at last culture produced something that could be described as “bro camp.”
What’s most extraordinary about The Room is its utter lack of winking—it clearly has no idea how it’s coming off. It’s that removed from reality. The Room is a rare example of pure camp that hails from a century too self-aware for much of that to exist anymore—in-on-the-joke mugging has trickled even into the modern incarnations of relics of ‘90s naïveté like Full House and Mariah Carey. To love The Room is to laugh at The Room and the feeble grasp on humanity evidenced by Tommy Wiseau, its writer/director/producer/star/resident egomaniac.
Wiseau, who looks like an aging metalhead who discovered steroids in his 50s, is as confounding a cultural object as his art. He is evasive about his origin (he says he’s from New Orleans but has an unmistakably Eastern European accent), his age, his source of wealth that allowed him to invest a rumored $6 million into The Room. We also have no idea what’s... up with him. Is he willfully weird? Matter-of-factly eccentric? Culturally discordant? Neurally diverse?
The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s own low-key expression of egomania that doesn’t have a tenth of the guts of Wiseau’s, is interested in some of those questions to extent that it poses them without answers when it is narratively convenient. Based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Room co-star Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist retells the making of The Room, and Sestero (portrayed by James Franco’s brother, Dave Franco) is rendered as the perfect foil to the extreme human behavior of Wiseau (Franco plays him, in addition to having directed and produced the movie).
Dave’s Sestero is a credulous conduit to Wiseau’s weirdness, barely interrogating any of the litany of questions his existence strikes. The Sestero here is enthusiastic and good-natured but blank, not that it could be any other way with James Franco’s decent but not entirely dead-on impersonation of the heretofore seemingly inimitable Wiseau taking up all the screen all the time. James’s performance is overpowering to the extent that when Dave’s Sestero talks about Home Alone changing his life and really want to get into acting, it barely registers as humorous, since it didn’t come out of Tommy’s mouth.
Much of The Disaster Artist is devoted to reiterating what’s funny about The Room, which is true to the experience of loving The Room, a movie that has come to be consumed via communal midnight screenings, in which the audience participates generally according to a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like protocol (they wear wigs, they throw spoons, they position themselves under Wiseau’s droopy left eye, etc.). But in presenting a straightforward comedy about an unintentional comedy, James Franco flattens the experience of The Room. There’s no joy of discovery, there’s far less room for the kind of internal dialogue that camp provokes. The cult of The Room is the product of interpretation (even when that interpretation is as simplistic is “WTF?”), where as The Disaster Artist dictates. The Room is wondrously mindless, whereas The Disaster Artist is just kind of dumb.
The Disaster Artist explains little that those already familiar with The Room don’t know, but in its Wiseau-like determination to be adored, it leaves out several key details that might make this story harder to chuckle along with. Franco’s Wiseau is demanding, insensitive, and incompetent on set, but not quite abusive. Meanwhile, Sestero’s book describes Wiseau as far more volatile—at one point, Sestero writes, Wiseau threw a bottle at the head of (eventually fired) actor Brianna Tate after she asked for some water. What Wiseau supposedly said in response—“Nobody in Hollywood will give you water!”—is in Franco’s movie, but the chucking is not, even though it seemed a big enough deal for the whole cast to walk off set in response, according to Sestero’s account. Nor is Franco referring to (uncredited) director of photography Graham Futerfas as “faggot” and “sissy” in a knock-down-drag-out fight in front of the crew on set.
Franco’s movie teases at Wiseau’s gay-seeming crush on Sestero (despite Franco announcing similarly coy speculations about his own sexuality were “homophobic”) and ignores a lot of the creepiness Wiseau exhibited, according to Sestero. “I didn’t trust Tommy’s motives in wanting to see young people—whether in casting or rehearsals or while filming—make out in front of him so frequently,” wrote Sestero. Sestero also wrote that when auditioning the actor who originally had Sestero’s role, he made him show Wiseau his ass, “which was humiliating for him and deeply uncomfortable for the cameraman (me).” Wiseau supposedly “emotionally terrorize[d]” women actors during auditions by attempting to provoke reactions by screaming at them things like, “Your sister just became a lesbian!” and “Your mother just die!”
Rehearsals with Juliette Danielle, who played the role of Wiseau’s love interest, Lisa, went down like this, according to Sestero:
Juliette, though, was willing to kiss Tommy, even though you’re barely supposed to kiss in rehearsals. With no contract signed and no camera running, she and Tommy would stand there in rehearsal and make out. For minutes. Whenever I told Tommy, “You don’t need to go that far,” he’d say, “I need to see if they can perform. If they can’t perform, I’m sorry, they have to leave. Out. And don’t be jealous, young man.” (After The Room was released, my mother commented that to pay $6 million to make out with a girl was “pretty pathetic.”)
Kind of makes him a little bit less adorably eccentric, doesn’t it? Wiseau’s regard for his female characters—that they’re moronic life-ruiners who mostly just live to shop and gossip—is atrocious; Franco’s is mostly just sort of apathetic. He gestures toward some kind of interior lives as the women in his movie briefly comment on their discomfort and befuddlement on Wiseau’s set without much fleshing out.
After spending about 90 minutes of (however affectionately) mocking Wiseau’s story, The Disaster Artist decides it’s actually a triumph. Wiseau’s embrace of the jubilant derision The Room received during its premiere (and subsequently) gives The Disaster Artist its happy ending that’s far too conventional for such an outrageous tale. This is a celebration of the mercurial nature of opportunism—Franco’s Wiseau immediately announces to his in-stitches audience, “I’m glad you like my comedic movie. Exactly how I intended,” and the movie then sails out on documentary footage of the real Wiseau cavorting with Room devotees, with whom he laughs as they laugh at him. The Room was rightly described by Sestero in his book as “a vanity project intended to promote Tommy and Tommy alone,” and it does seem that Wiseau has embraced the derision to salvage his own ego. That makes him admirable only if you prioritize willful delusion as a coping mechanism and attention to the extent that you think all of it is good. That’s not an uncommon value in 2017, but it’s a depressing one that this movie seems all too happy to perpetuate.
In a recent A.V. Club interview, James Franco summed up the appeal of The Room by saying, “I think what makes this thing endlessly watchable is how much Tommy put his heart and soul into it and how personal it is.” Yes, it’s true, but only because it creates a great valley in which to frolic between intention and effect. Franco seems to mean this earnestly now that he has worked with Wiseau, who shows up in The Disaster Artist in a cameo and has helped promote it. That’s smarmy, revisionist history. What makes The Room endlessly watchable is how extraordinarily inane it is, and how pathetic it is that Wiseau put his heart and soul into it. At best, James Franco, like the rest of Wiseau’s devotees, is cheering for the enigmatic filmmaker out of both sides of his mouth. I know that he knows better, and I understand why he’s not letting on that he does.
Before the closing credits, side-to-side comparisons play of scenes from The Room and Franco’s recreations of them, as if to say, “Look at how we nailed it!” The mimicry is indeed impressive, right down to the extraordinary ego.